What is it that links Big Mama Thornton’s ‘Hound dog’ to Sam Cooke’s ‘(What a) wonderful world’ to the Kinks’ ‘You really got me’ to the Supremes’ ‘You can’t hurry love’ to Toots and Maytal’s ‘Pressure drop’ to the Undertones’ ‘Teenage kicks’ to Prince’s ‘When doves cry’ to the Buzzcocks’ ‘Ever fallen in love (with someone you shouldn’t have)?’?
It’s one of those strange questions that popped into my head this week after the death of Pete Shelley. Shelley was the Buzzcocks’ lead singer (well, he was after the original singer Devoto left after their first EP). The Buzzcocks were one of the great bands of the Manchester scene, and Pete Shelley one of the great songsmiths of punk, indeed of any genre.
Some of the praise showered Shelley this week reflects no doubt the age of the generation that now dominate the cultural scene in this country. But it reflects also the fact that Shelley’s songs are fit to stand in the line of the greatest 3-minute pop songs. The standout was ‘Ever fallen in love (with someone you shouldn’t have)?’ But there was a whole production line of songs that still raise the hairs on the back on the neck.
The elements that make songs that seem almost an almost perfect pop song – story, hook, chord progression, emotional charge – are almost banal when laid out like that. But certain songs fuse the elements, almost magically, into a three-minute package. And three minutes seems to be the classic time for a classic song. Originally three minutes was the standard because of the physical limitation of 78s and 45s. But it also seems to express some deeper limit of human psychology. There are, of course, dozens of classic songs much longer – think of everything from Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner City Blues’ to Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ to Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman, No Cry’. But these are not ‘pop songs’ in the way I am thinking of. Three minutes (give or take a minute) seems to be the perfect time length.
Pete Shelley was a master at constructing such songs. And it led me to thinking about my favourite three-minute ‘perfect’ pop songs. Curating such a list is, of course, an arbitrary exercise. There are hundreds of songs that might be fitted into one. But, in my madness, I’ve narrowed it down to 20 (plus ‘Ever fallen in love’ as the 21st), and here they are in chronological order. I doubt if anyone will agree with my list. I doubt if I agree with myself. But make your own list (as no doubt I will tomorrow or in six months’ time). Just think of it as a playlist fit for Pete Shelley.
The photo of Pete Shelley is by Andre Csillag/REX/Shutterstock.